Discord in Israel over orchestra's plans to play at Wagner festival

Proposed performance at Bayreuth has reopened old wounds
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The Independent Online

Nearly 130 years after his death, Richard Wagner still provokes a maelstrom of emotions. Katharina Wagner, the German composer's great-granddaughter, has pulled out of a trip to Israel where she was to announce that the Israel Chamber Orchestra would be invited to open the next season of the prestigious Bayreuth festival, the annual celebration of Wagner's music.

Ms Wagner cancelled the trip after the orchestra's participation was leaked to the Israeli media, prompting a hostile reaction in Israel. Wagner is widely shunned there for his anti-Semitic writings, which drew admiration from Adolf Hitler. Israeli orchestras have largely honoured a seven-decade boycott of Wagner's work, partly out of respect for Holocaust survivors, who claim Jews were sent to the gas chambers while Wagner was played in the background.

Ms Wagner's decision will not affect the ensemble's participation at Bayreuth next year, which will be the first time an Israeli orchestra has taken part in the month-long festival.

"The decision [to take part] was not to break a taboo," Erella Talmi, who chairs the Israeli orchestra's board of directors, told Israel Radio. "The decision was to accept an invitation that showed a new openness."

Intended as a gesture of reconciliation between the Wagner family and Israel, Ms Wagner's trip was planned in total secrecy. Only a few weeks before, Ms Wagner told Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper she had authorised a group of historians to investigate her family's links with the Nazi regime, including her great-grandfather's influence on Nazi thinking.

Nevertheless, the efforts at a rapprochement have reopened old wounds in Israel, where the composer is still widely reviled. "Our fear is that this will legitimise Wagner in Israel," said Ephraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal centre, the world's biggest Nazi-hunting organisation. "Wagner cannot apologise. It's a closed book. There is no way of making up for his anti-Semitic writings."

The unofficial boycott of Wagner dates back to 1938, when the Palestine Orchestra, now known as the Israel Philharmonic, refused to perform his works in protest at the treatment of the Jews in Nazi Germany.

Although Wagner died some 50 years before the Nazis gained power, his espousal of German superiority over the Jews influenced Nazi thinking, and Hitler adopted him as his favourite composer. In his book Jewishness in Music, Wagner claimed that Jews could only produce populist, money-making music, rather than real works of art. He also claimed Germans were repelled by contact with Jews, who dressed and acted strangely.

In recent years, some in Israel have tried to bring Wagner to a domestic audience, but those efforts have met with a stony reception. Daniel Barenboim, the Argentinian-born Israeli conductor, performed part of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde in 2001, but he was heckled and some of the audience walked out. The performance created such a stir in Israel that several lawmakers called for a boycott of the Jewish maestro. Only a year earlier, an Israeli orchestra had performed Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, under the baton of the Holocaust survivor Mendi Rodan.

Colette Avital, an Israeli former politician, believes it could be years before Wagner can comfortably be played in Israel. "As long as there are survivors of the Holocaust, their sensitivity has to be respected and nobody should hurt their feelings," she said.